Sandy beaches, golden sands and sunshine are among the many reasons cited for choosing the Algarve in Portugal as a holiday destination. To not look beyond these clichéd visions of the Algarve would however fail to do justice to this region with its abundance of areas of outstanding natural beauty hosting important and rare species of flora and fauna. We take a look at two of the most important locations not to miss out on, guaranteed to mesmerise both the casual visitor and the more ardent student of the natural world.
Ria Formosa Natural Park
A maze of canals, islands marshes and barrier islands, the Ria Formosa is a wetland of international importance, stretching 60kms along the Algarve coast, between the beaches of Manta Rota and Garrão. There are different ways to see the park; hiking trails and guided walks, cycling, boat and kayak trips are all available in the protected areas. The park even organises tours in a traditional boat formerly used in tuna fisheries.
Wooden pathway on the Ria Formosa marshlands
The indigenous plants fall into two categories: those found in salt-marsh habitat and those that are mainly associated with sand dune systems. There’s also a large area of open pine woodland which is home to more flowers and numerous species of fungi.
Wild flowers grow on the marshlands
Ria Formosa is a paradise for birdwatchers. During the winter it regularly hosts more than 20,000 birds and as such is one of the most important areas for aquatic birds in Portugal. Birds migrating between Europe and Africa use it as a resting place and it provides shelter for rare species such as the purple Swamphen, the symbol of this Natural Park.
Black-headed Weaver perched on a reed, Ria Formosa Natural Park
Lagoa dos Salgados (Salgados Lagoon) and Praia Grande
Despite being much smaller than Ria Formosa, Lagoa dos Salgados has become one of the most rewarding and sought-after birdwatching hotspots in the Algarve and one of the most important freshwater wetlands. Also known as ‘Pera Marsh’, it is inhabited by numerous different species including some rare ones. You can walk along the beach from Armacao de Pera to Praia Grande, where the wooden walkway starts.
Timber walkway at Lagoa dos Salgados
The walkway runs around most of the lagoon and provides a good overview of the dunes and the wetland. A golf course runs along the eastern side of the lagoon, enclosing several man-made ponds and small lakes; the boundaries of this golf course are well worth a visit as this is the preferred habitat of the iconic purple Swamphen.
There is also a signposted trail (the Praia Grande Interpretation Trail) which runs for around 5.5km, crossing the farmland that extends to the west of Salgados. Its path encounters a marshy area located at the mouth of the Alcantarilha stream, which usually shelters some waders and herons.
The best time to visit the lagoon is very early in the morning and on weekdays. During weekends, the area surrounding Salgados and Praia Grande is quite busy.
Lagoa dos Salgados
Please note, the Algarve offers much more besides incredible nature areas, please visit our Algarve tourist guide for more information.